Sunday, September 14, 2003

The Art of Words, the Borders of Language 

The Art of Words, the Borders of Language
David Greenberger
Shelley Hirsch
Tracie Morris


We gathered in the PICA resource center at noon. It was hard to hear from one side of the room, as the windows were open and trucks drove by, rumbling and drowning u s out. It would have been too hot to close the windows. We introduced ourselves, some with just a name, others clearly used to introducing themselves in crowded rooms. I haven't seen any of the artists' performances yet, and maybe it's better that way.

S o these three are unquestionably all charismatic and focussed people. I wasn't sure how well they'd get along, and it wasn't my problem anyway. But they did engage each other. They introduced themselves and talked a bit about their current work and how t hey got there.

Shelly Hirsch was an artists' model when she was 18. She said she was interested in the area between narrative and abstract spaces. She's fascinated by music and it is a vital part of her work. We heard a short sample of her audio perfor mance, which was cut off, but she took it up where it left off, and said "The body is the best recorder possible and the storage house for all these lovely memories." When Shelley speaks, she makes all kinds of gestures wth her arms which seem to demonstr ate pulling something out of her body. She twists her hands together, waved them in the air, but keeps coming back to her chest and then out again. If you're talking about the limits of words, there's no question that they are only part of the way that sh e communicates. She said, "What I love most about language is that you can say a thing in one language and it has a completely different sense in another language." I wonder if that's what she really loves most about language. I bet that's just the way s he talks.

Tracie Morris is definitely an academic. My experience with linguistics told me she was expressing herself using a langauge that we would understand, but not the one she uses to formulate the ideas. Those tools may be too sharp for us. She sli pped a couple of times, said something about couplets; later she mentioned phonemes. And at one point she said she made her students move because "we hold memories in different parts of our selves, organs and musculature, and you have to move to access th ose places." Woah, that wasn't academic, that sounds more like my acupuncturist. I know what she means, having burst into tears while holding a yoga pose. She talked about how words can be used to marginalize entire groups of people, and then brought up t he idea that whole groups of people who never even existed at all (Greenberger mentioned 'the greatest generation') and then marginalize them as well. Modern linguistics has reached the point where it has become a project of describing a total theory of human meaning and culture, an ambition matched in my opinion only by marxism. So there are just a few people who are in the know, saddled with the responsibility of telling everyone else why they think and do what they think and do. What a frustrating job for Morris. I can tell she inspires her students and turns them into radicals.

For the past week, I've taken my grandfather his mail and visited with him at his nursing home, which is the last stop for a lot of people. Greenberger has been taping conversations with elderly residents of nursing homes. Upon a sugestion that he take slides with his conversations, reacted to the idea - he doesn't want to create something quaint. He doesn't want to give you quaint package to be taken away. We heard a sample of his work, not the nursing home work, but a different piece, which was funny. It was set to music. He said he uses music to hide the limitations of his own talent. It was strange to hear him talk, because I had noticed the relationships my grandfather had formed with the people around him, who change his diapers and keep him company all day. It's a place with a different set of rules for dignity, for nakedness, and human relationships, where a stranger can talk to my grandfather about his scrotum in my presence and I'm the only one who blinks. My grandfather's infirmity is not a quaint package.

MISC: The moderator, Camilla Raymond, asked a question about instrumentality, and I didnt know what that meant, and I'm not so dumb. At one point, Shelley H irsch got up and left without explanation. Did she use the bathroom? did she smoke a cigarette? At one point, my cell phone went off when I got a text message, which was embarassing.

In the final analysis, as I formulate and pin them wriggling to the wall, I see three people who see language in three different ways. For Shelley Hirsch, the origin of her words is her body. You can see it as she speaks, the visceral way she brings them out with the help of music. Tracie Morris is a word technician, who needs to see what the words are doing. Words are just part of the story. It's power that glues the shape of a sound and the corresponding chemical blip in our brains to their objects and ideas. You could call her when your wordmobile breaks down, and she would open the hood and show you how the power isn't getting to to where it needs to be. David Greenberger is a word rescuer. Language and meaning is out there, but not in the right place, and he can use a tape recorder and his brain to get the words fr om one place to another. People are recontextualized and able to express new parts of themselves when they move from place to place, say a nursing home, or college. But he can do the same thing by travelling to them, rescuing some words (from Death or simply Apathy) and bringing them back among the living and retelling them.

Patrick sullivan
patrick at expatrick dotcom

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